Making Nice

Robert Schrier took the University of Colorado to court for academic freedom. The school settled before a jury could hear the tale.

Earlier this year, officials at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center quietly settled a long-running lawsuit filed by Robert Schrier, one of their most distinguished professors of medicine. Forged two weeks before the suit was scheduled to go to trial, the deal required CU to fork over more than a million dollars in compensation, legal fees and funding commitments to the professor, as well as an unusual apology from the dean of the medical center. Yet this tail-between-the-legs resolution of the case went virtually unreported in the local media except for a brief announcement in the Silver & Gold Record, the university's in-house newspaper.

Chalk it up as a public-relations victory for CU -- and one more obscure, seven-figure line item in the soaring costs of the HSC's move from its cramped Denver location to a 180-acre campus at Fitzsimons in Aurora, a much-delayed and troubled project that is now estimated to cost more than $1.5 billion. Five years ago, Schrier raised concerns about the staggering public debt that would be incurred by the move, and it cost him his job.

Schrier had been the chair of CU's department of medicine for 26 years, during which time the department's faculty, research grants, endowed chairs and national reputation grew significantly. But in 2002 he was abruptly removed as chair by dean Richard Krugman, shortly after Schrier questioned the economics of the Fitzsimons move in a department newsletter. At the time, Krugman denied that Schrier's removal was related to his criticism of the Fitzsimons project, insisting that a change of leadership had been under discussion for years. Schrier took issue with several of Krugman's statements and filed suit, claiming violations of academic freedom and the university's own personnel policies.

The removal triggered a storm of protest from other medical-school faculty. Schrier's concerns about the negative impact the move would have on HSC's operations and resources proved prescient, as the bond debt shot upward and research funds were diverted to help defray construction costs. Rattled by the turmoil, several star researchers left CU for other positions, taking millions of dollars in research grants with them ("Throwing Fitz,"September 2, 2004). Worse, donations from private sources for the new campus fell hundreds of millions of dollars short of extravagantly optimistic projections.

Schrier was unable to block his dismissal as chair, but he remained a tenured faculty member. And he did battle with CU's lawyers right up until January, when the university decided to avoid the risks -- and public embarrassment -- of a trial. While admitting no liability, CU agreed to pay $300,000 toward Schrier's legal bills and to guarantee his current annual salary of $328,364 through 2010. The school of medicine will also assume $750,000 in costs for three years of ongoing research into sepsis-related kidney failure, a study Schrier began under a National Institutes of Health grant; $150,000 of that sum goes directly toward Schrier's salary.

The settlement also included a cautiously worded public apology from Krugman, which he distributed in his weekly e-mail to faculty members. The statement praised Schrier's "enormous contributions" to the HSC, then added: "The circumstances surrounding his removal as Chair in October 2002 were unfortunate, and I regret the manner in which it was handled."

According to Schrier, depositions and affidavits produced by the lawsuit establish that his removal was prompted by his public position on Fitzsimons and that there was an orchestrated campaign by the dean and his superiors to discourage faculty from speaking out about the move.

"The academic freedom of the faculty to openly and honestly discuss important issues that have potential impact on the quality of patient care, education of students and biomedical research is critical," Schrier says. "For a chancellor to tell a dean, and a dean to tell chairs to keep their faculty quiet about the Fitzsimons move or be fired -- as has been documented under oath -- attacks the very essence and integrity of a university."

In his e-mail apology, Krugman stated that he was looking forward to "moving ahead with the important work of the School of Medicine." Part of that important work is scrambling for funds to complete the Fitzsimons move. A $92 million pledge for a new orthodontics center by a Florida executive evaporated, but sources for other projects have stepped forward, including billionaire Phil Anschutz, whose foundation has donated more than $91 million to the Fitzsimons expansion, now known as the Anschutz Medical Campus. And last week the legislature restored nearly $25 million to the medical school's budget in tobacco settlement funds, boosting what has been an anemic level of state support for the school in recent years.

Some faculty members still lament the exodus of talent in recent years, saying it will take time for the health sciences center to recover. "Bricks and mortar are important," Schrier says, "but over the long run, it's the quality of the faculty that makes for a great university and a great medical school."

 
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